Bipolar disorder: Brilliance at a steep price

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February 05, 2010
Nicole Baute

Living Reporter

When they were up, they were way up – penning heart-wrenching novels, painting some of the most striking works of modern times and uncovering scientific theories that changed the world.

But then, they were down.

Famous suspected sufferers of bipolar disorder such as Vincent van Gogh, Sir Isaac Newton and Virginia Woolf are not the only geniuses with a touch of madness to them, suggests a new study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

The study, which looked at the national exam grades of more than 700,000 16-year-old Swedes, found that high-achieving A students, particularly in the arts, were four times more likely to develop bipolar disorder in adulthood than average students.

“Bipolar is predominantly a mood disorder,” explains lead researcher Dr. James MacCabe of the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London.

“The person has periods of very low moods, depression, and other periods of what we call mania, which is where they have a very high mood. They’re often very active, often spending a lot of money, not sleeping very much, and can actually be quite productive during that time.”

While IQ is a key factor in academic performance, the study notes other important factors that determine a student’s success include attention, engagement, memory, social skills and creativity. People with bipolar disorder often show exaggerated emotional responses, enhanced vocabulary and memory and a tireless capacity for concentration.

Students with very low grades were found to be at increased risk not only for bipolar disorder but also for schizophrenia – suggesting, MacCabe says, that there could be two subtypes of bipolar disorder that may have different causes.

Dr. Sagar Parikh, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto, has treated thousands of people with bipolar disorder in the city. Among them, he has seen roughly 200 lawyers, 100 physicians and some CEOs – a strikingly high number of high-achievers.

When people with bipolar disorder are in a mild high state, they have more energy, creativity and confidence, Parikh says.

They think faster, sleep less and get more done. “Being a little high is what makes you productive.”

Dr. James Potash, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, refers to An Unquiet Mind, a memoir by his colleague Kay Jamison, saying bipolar disorder has been thought to bring with it some creative blessings.

“The crucial caveat to that is, while there may be some real positives,” he says, “the biggest picture issue is that the disease can be so disabling and sometimes deadly that, in spite of whatever positives are associated with it, you absolutely do need to get it treated.”

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